It’s a funny old place, London. You live here for years and there are some stations that you see on an almost daily basis – and then there are others that you just never seem to get to. Living in east London, I seldom have any reason to go to High Street Kensington, other than one time years and years ago when I went to see the daffodils in Holland Park. Other than that, I had not been there in years – but since August this year, circumstances have conspired to bring me there no less than three times! The first was for a university reunion dinner at Maggie Jones restaurant; the second was a recent dinner at Min Jiang, and the third was a most enjoyable dinner with Andrew and David at Chenestons at the Milestone hotel, sandwiched in between all my travel in October.
The Milestone Hotel is one of the Red Carnation group of hotels, a collection of fourteen award-winning luxury family owned and run boutique hotels, located in the UK, South Africa, Switzerland and the USA. The group was founded by South African-born Bea Tollman and her husband and has since the mid 1970s established a reputation for timeless décor, exceptional locations, highly personal and genuine guest care, and celebrated cuisine. The Milestone Hotel, located on a prime patch of real estate across the road from Kensington Palace gardens, is a beautifully ornate 19th century red brick building which is consistently rated as London’s most outstanding five star luxury boutique hotel, as well as a string of other awards. Stepping into Chenestons restaurant in the heart of the hotel is like taking a step back into another century. The room is warmly inviting with candlelight twinkling on silverware, dark ornate mahogany furniture, and a huge stone fireplace at one end of the room. The kitchen is in the capable hands of Kim Sjobakk, a Norwegian chef who has been with the hotel since 2011 and previously worked at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and the Dorchester. There’s a fine choice of wine too, with an extensive wine cellar of more than 400 vintages, and we were lucky to have German head sommelier, Lia Poveda, on hand to select a wine to match each of our courses. Although our menu was a bespoke tasting menu, most of the dishes are also available on the a la carte menu, and those are the prices I have listed.
Things started off on a high note with the arrival of a beautiful silver basket of warm home-made breadrolls. The bread by itself was pretty amazing but it was the butter that had us all swooning and keeping a beady eye on each other to make sure nobody took more than their allotted share! To be fair, I’ve never met a butter I did not like, but these flavoured butters were in a league of their own: salted, unsalted, fresh herbs, tomato, and swoonsome black truffle. I also loved the way the tomato butter had been made to look like a real cherry tomato with the addition of a stalk! Although the temptation was huge just to pig out on bread, we had seen the menu and knew there was a long journey ahead, so we restrained ourselves (but not before we had demolished the truffle butter!).
The first thing to arrive was an amuse bouche consisting of a shot glass of celeriac veloute with pine foam. Seasonal, creamily decadent, and lifted by the pine foam, this was a great opening act. We were told that the menu still retains some of Bea Tollman’s personal favourites, some of them being old family recipes and others having been picked up during Bea and her husband’s extensive travels, and that our first course would be one of those: Bea’s chicken noodle soup (£10.50). The soup was served with a little mini chicken pasty – and sadly, this was the highlight of the dish for me. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against chicken noodle soup, but this really did seem like invalid food – underseasoned and underwhelming, and at a rather eye-watering price. The pasty, however, was flaky, deep-filled and delicious. The wines for the evening were almost all from Bouchard Finlayson, one of South Africa’s premier wine estates in the beautiful Walker Bay area, and the one selected for this course was the Bouchard Finlayson 2012 Blanc de Mer. This is an unusual blend for South Africa, consisting of about 50% Riesling year on year and the balance made up of Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon. Although the nose was overwhelmingly Sauvignon to me, the soup brought out the fruit flavours of the Riesling really well, making it a good match.
The next course was one of those dishes that seems ubiquitous on every high-end menu in London: scallops on pea puree. But Chenestons’ pan-roasted west coast scallops with baby beets & Bordelaise sauce (£15.50) were somewhat of a revelation – not only for the addition of earthy baby beets or meaty Bordelaise sauce, but also for the sheer size of the scallops! These massive, creamy beasts were crisply seared on the outside but yielding, tender and barely cooked in the centre – scallop Nirvana. The wine match for this was the Bouchard Finlayson 2010 Kaaimansgat Chardonnay, which had a very toasty nose but a fresh youthfulness (almost a petillant zing on the tongue) that belied its age. The wood was well integrated on the creamy palate which also featured lovely subtle citrus and toasty flavours, yet never enough to overwhelm the delicate flavours of the scallop.
Up next was more fish: the poached fillet of Scottish salmon with ratte potatoes, steamed clams and a clam velouté (£27.00). The fish was poached to perfection – moist and flaky – but it was the clam velouté , with its tangle of samphire and sprinkling of clams still in their shells that really caught my attention: creamy, flavourful and delicious. Surprisingly, the wine chosen to match this was a red: the Bouchard Finlayson 2008 Hannibal, an unusual blend of Sangiovese (52 %), Pinot noir (14 %), Nebbiolo (14 %), Mourvedré (10 %), Barbera (7 %) and Shiraz (3 %). The end result is a wine of lovely concentrated plummy fruits and soft tannins – a complex palate that is never too heavy and leans more towards fruitiness. With the oily salmon and the rich velouté, it proved to be a surprisingly successful match. This was followed by a dish of slow roasted Goosnargh duck with savoy cabbage, confit potatoes & roasted figs (£28.00). As I am a sucker for a good duck breast, I was predisposed to liking this course but I must say, the pairing of the duck with roasted figs would have won over even the greatest skeptic – it’ is a wonderful and seasonal combination. As you can see, the duck was perfectly pink throughout with a wonderfully caramelised skin, making me wonder whether it had been cooked sous vide before a brief spell in a hot pan – either way, it was glorious. The wine match here was the Bouchard Finlayson 2010 Galpin Peak Pinot Noir. Although not a heavy red, it is pretty full-bodied for a pinot noir with a classic “meaty” nose and lots of ripe red berry fruit on the palate – a wonderful match for the rich duck.
Our pre-dessert was refreshingly palate-cleansing – although I forgot to write it down so am going to hazard a guess that it was… mango? Definitely some sort of yellow and slightly off-tart fruit, served in a shot lass topped with its own foam. My only niggly complaint would be that it was served with a teaspoon larger than the actual diameter of the glass, so no way of scraping the last delicious bits out (unless you are tempted to use your finger… but Chenestons is really is not that sort of place!). The first of the desserts proper was a rather heavenly bowl of honeycomb ice-cream with a sesame seed tuille. The ice-cream was rich and creamy with plentiful chunks of honeycomb and the tuille was crisp and feather-light. I particularly liked the generous sprinkling of honeycomb pieces (which tasted of real honey, rather than high-fructose corn syrup!) around the ice-cream. By this point, we were all pretty full and protested feebly when the second dessert arrived at the table – a slice of baked American-style cheesecake with macerated strawberries. “Oh no”, we exclaimed, “we can’t possibly eat anything else!” But one spoonful of the dense, creamy cheesecake, contrasted with the plump tart berries and all resistance crumbled. Less than 10 minutes later, our plates were clean. Never underestimate the power of the cheesecake. To pair with the desserts we had some 2010 Moncalvina Moscato di Asti, a delicate and lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine from Italy with a floral nose and wonderful peach and apricot flavours – sweet without being cloying, and wonderful for balancing out the richness of the desserts.
Chenestons (and, indeed, the Milestone hotel) are an island of old-school Victorian charm and graciousness in the heart of Kensington, an ideal destination for anyone wishing to experience a bygone age of genteel and typically English style and graciousness. Other than the lacklustre chicken soup, everything we had was delicious, with the standouts being the flavoured butters, the gigantic scallop and the desserts. The prices, however, are on the high side, even for London (£27 for a piece of poached salmon and a couple of clams, for example) – don’t think of going unless you are on good terms with your bank manager! It’s not as if Cheneston’s is alone in its frisky pricing (this is London, and a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace after all), but if you are expecting cutting edge cuisine and culinary fireworks for those prices, you are better off looking elsewhere: nothing on the Chenestons menu is designed to scare the horses or push the boat out. But for well-heeled visitors to London who can’t be dealing with all these new-fangled foams, fussy molecular cuisine, or ethnic fusion food, it is the perfect destination for stepping back into a gentler and altogether more English era.
Approximate price of our meal per person: £150+ including matching wines
Liked: the show-stopping flavoured butters, the desserts, the knowledgeable sommelier
Disliked: the high prices, the somewhat unadventurous menu
In a nutshell: Victorian graciousness and an excellet, solidly traditional menu at haute cuisine prices
Wow factor out of 10: 7
DISCLAIMER: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of the Red Carnation Group but received no remuneration other than the meal. All opinions are my own.
Chenestons @ the Milestone Hotel
1 Kensington Court
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7917 1000
And in other news… if you liked the restaurant photos in this post and wish you could learn to take better low light photos….